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Book Review: Comrade J – The Untold Secrets of Russia’s Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War by Pete Earley

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Just about any average adult in the United States now knows that the only time politicians lie is when their lips are moving. The average adult also knows that a large portion of both private business and government, particularly those who speak to the press, often give, shall we say, misleading, incomplete, or not quite true summaries of whatever it is on the news that particular day. At best, it’s their side of the story, told how they want to tell it, and relating how much they’re willing to give you. In many cases, they’re giving you disinformation. Disinformation is what ordinary people call lies.

All that said, I — having spent many years working for various U.S. Government intelligence agencies, including NSA, both overseas and in the U.S. — found Pete Earley's Comrade J: The Untold Secrets of Russia's Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War to be very informative and revealing. In some cases, irritating and exasperating. Not with the facts as presented, not with the author, and not with the subject of the book — Russian spymaster, defector, and double agent Sergei Tretyakov — but with what the author and Tretyakov, code-named Comrade J, tell us about the sorry state of affairs within our own government.

Now for some specifics. First, an example of sorting out the truth. Early in the book, Tretyakov says, according to the author, “… Russian intelligence targeted President Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, and ran a carefully calculated campaign designed to manipulate him.” Talbott, in a written reply, said, “… he knew that Mamedov was relaying all of their conversations …” back to Russian intelligence.

The following paragraph says, “Just the same, the FBI took the accusations about Talbott seriously … In 1999, FBI officials asked Secretary (of State) Albright not to share information with Talbott …” Talbott, as then described, was tagged by the SVR, Russia’s new name for the KGB, “… as a ‘specific unofficial contact’ – a specific term that the SVR used to identify its most secret, highly placed intelligence sources.” “Specific unofficial contact” also means a person who’s passing classified, or inside, or both, information.

See what I mean? Obviously, there’s a little more to the story in Untold Secrets, but nothing that would unmuddy the waters.

An example of self-serving words is this, when Earley was introduced by his “FBI contact” to Tretyakov: “ ‘Our only purpose here today is to introduce you. We are not encouraging him to tell his story, nor are we discouraging him. He wanted to meet you and we agreed to facilitate it. We will have no part in your talks.’ ” All this verbiage in diplospeak means is, “He can (wink, wink, nod, nod) spill his guts because we think it will serve our purposes.”

Think back. When has the FBI or CIA or any of the alphabet soup agencies ever set up a meeting between a defector and a reporter, or writer, before they had their case built? Let me save you some time. The answer is never. If they don’t have the defector in their pocket, whether it’s with money (the usual way), or with threats (who knows?), or patriotism towards his new country (HA!), he flat does not speak to anybody. Often, the people “protecting” him don’t let him see even his own family.

So where’s the truth here? I sure as hell don’t know. All I can do is guess, just like you.

On the very next page, Tretyakov is quoted. “As a people, you (Americans) are very naïve about Russia and its intentions. You believe because the Soviet Union no longer exists, Russia now is your friend. It isn’t, and I can show how the SVR is trying to destroy the U.S. even today and even more than the KGB did during the Cold War.” That is the Gospel according to Saint Tretyakov, and you can assuredly take it to the bank.

Tretyakov goes on to give up the SVR, the old KGB, family jewels about a number of UN officials who were in Russia’s pocket, and some who still are. He names a few Canadians who were regular sources of Comrade J, and who’ve never been outed. He clears up some anomalies that U.S. intelligence has wondered about, but never able to pin down. He was a double agent for several years before he defected, turning over thousands of SVR Top Secret cables, the highest classification possible, and hundreds of SVR reports, also Top Secret. He relates how and when a Russian spy inside the UN siphoned off as much as a half-billion dollars meant for starving Iraqi women and children before Saddam’s fall, and was given an award for it by Vladimir Putin, because he lined quite a few pockets, including possibly Putin’s, in the process.

In addition, Tretyakov tells how the USSR had once intended to rid itself of nuclear and chemical waste by taking them to a remote Arctic island and destroying them by setting off a nuclear bomb. (!!) He tells how some people had given the businessman who was arranging this disposal a nuclear weapon, because they couldn’t pay him. And he tells how all of this was endorsed by the Kremlin. I could go on for another couple of paragraphs, but I urge you to read Untold Secrets for yourself. Some of you will say I told you so. Others will be amazed. And some of you may feel bound to do something about it.

Gripes. Earley makes a couple of minor mistakes, for instance incorrectly saying that the KGB and SVR always called their operatives intelligence “officers,” while the CIA called theirs intelligence “agents.” [CIA operatives are called officers; the people who spy for them are called agents.] He also leaves a few gaps in parts of his narrative which leave the reader guessing as to the outcome. I can excuse the minor mistakes, since Earley was first a reporter, then an author, and not necessarily knowledgeable about intelligence. The holes in the story, however, should have been addressed, either by him or his editor. Many didn’t seem to be germane to Tretyakov’s story, for the most part, so I can see how they could have been overlooked. But since they were brought up, they should have been seen through, or readers should have been told they’re unanswerable, at least for now. Many of them look like they could have been cleared up with as little as an additional sentence or two.

My big gripes, however, are the lack of a glossary and an index. Untold Secrets is a complicated read, especially for those without a background in intelligence. A glossary would have made looking up the uncommonly used and heard terms and acronyms a simple matter, and would have been an even simpler matter to include. The author is good about explaining acronyms and uncommon terms the first time they’re used, but after that you’re on your own. There’s no glossary to look them up in, and there’s no index to refer to.

The index in a book of this complexity is absolutely essential. Again, Earley explains who a person is and his connections the first time he introduces that person. Later references, particularly in a book of this length and one that tells us a gripping, but convoluted and complicated story, again leave you on your own. If you don’t recall the particulars of the person, place or event that’s brought up a second or third time, then you have two choices. Forget it, which could mean a gap in your comprehension, or go through it again, page by page, trying to locate the original reference. The absences of the index and the glossary are major shortcomings. Particularly nowadays, when, in creating the index, you don't have to do much beyond hitting the “Find” key and let the machine do most of the rest of your work for you.

All that said, however, I still highly recommend Comrade J: The Untold Secrets of Russia's Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War to anybody’s who interested in the future of the country, or an otherwise untold part of the recent past. Or to anybody who’s interested in a good spy yarn. A good, true spy yarn, that is. After all, Tretyakov is still, by far, the most important spy ever to come over. The last chapter pretty much summarizes his importance.

One last thing. Remember when I scoffed about a spy defecting because of patriotism towards his new country (HA!)? I may have to change my mind on that.

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About Lou Novacheck

  • TechEd

    I enjoyed your review of the book; however, I wanted to point out that creating a good index is a bit more work than clicking “Find” (and I’m not even sure what you mean by that.)

    Best wishes!

  • Lou Novacheck

    I was being a little facetious there, oversimplifying – didn’t mean to be misleading. Once you’ve got the pagination completed on your master, and while an editor or reviewer is reading the text, once s/he runs across a word/term/acronym/whatever that’s important to the overall book, s/he can mark the page number for that first reference. Then, just highlight the word and the program will find the future uses of the word/term/etc. A little more work will eliminate uses of the term in question that don’t add significant content, or are otherwise not needed in the index.

  • W.S. Worthington

    The story regarding the lobster dinner in the run down, dirty restaurant with dead fish in the aquarium that served foul tasting undersize lobsters was hard to believe. Could this story have been enhanced just a bit?

  • Lou Novacheck

    Here’s a repeat of what I wrote in the original article: So where’s the truth here? I sure as hell don’t know. All I can do is guess, just like you.

    Everybody involved in this is looking to make him/it/her/self in the best light. The truth won’t be out until the US gov releases the papers behind the defection, which will be out in time for your grandkids to read ’em.

    The only way to get the straight scoop sooner is to change the way the US gov does business. And that’s up to you to accomplish. You and every other US citizen out there.